In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: Excuse the bluntness of the headline. We both know the East Side isn’t dying, but it’s tough to argue that Milwaukee’s long-prosperous East Side—particularly on and around North Ave.—isn’t experiencing a large-scale downshift of late, one that’s affecting the local business climate and robbing from the historic neighborhood’s identity.
In the last month or two, Yield Bar abruptly closed, Bar Rescue wasn’t able to save Nick’s House (née Y-Not III), The Hotel Foster’s fate was up in the air for a moment, and yesterday, Red Dot’s ownership announced plans to focus on their Wauwatosa location. Meanwhile, cookie-cutter apartment complexes are going up. I know this isn’t unique to North Ave. In fact, Walker’s Point just lost two established tenants this month in La Perla and The Philly Way. And yes, I do acknowledge North Ave. and the surrounding area is still home to iconic local treasures like the Oriental, Comet Cafe, Beans & Barley, Landmark Lanes, Ma Fischer’s, and more. Still, the speed in which North Ave.’s local economy has been turned on its head is at the very least alarming to me, and I don’t even live in the neighborhood.
Since you do, Matt, and you have called this pocket home for more than half your life, you’ve surely witnessed a massive shift between then and now. While change is inevitable in a neighborhood’s look, feel, and identity, it seems to have escalated of late. I have some ideas why, but I’ll run it by you first. How does this recent slump compare to past years, and what are some factors behind it? Will things get worse before they get better?
Matt Wild: Was it Mark Twain or Abe Vigoda who said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”? I’m not sure, but yeah, the reports of the East Side’s death have been greatly exaggerated, too. (Also: Shout-out to everyone making an “It’s already dead!” response to the headline.)
You call the recent spate of closings “alarming,” but they just seem like the latest in a long, circle-of-life series of closings to me. As you mentioned, I’ve been living on the East Side for 20 years, and in that time I’ve seen far more “alarming” changes than, say, the School Yard shutting down. The end of The Globe East. The end of Oriental Drugs. The end of the Prospect Mall (R.I.P. the creepy video store that smelled like porn). These were huge losses, but a leisurely stroll down North Ave. on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night will tell you the area is still as North Ave.-y as ever. Yes, Milwaukee’s ongoing obsession with overpriced “luxury” apartments and condos has hit the neighborhood hard, wiping away most of its old bohemian charm and replacing it with cookie-cutter boxes and bro-tastic pub-crawls. Still, like every other neighborhood in Milwaukee, the East Side isn’t dying—it’s simply changing.
Something else in your intro jumped out at me: “I don’t even live in the neighborhood.” Not to start a heated East Side/Bay View #SceneBeef, but the majority of people I see bemoaning the East Side are like you—they don’t live on the East Side. So, Tyler, might all this talk of the East Side’s dim future be the product of people who don’t live there, or people who have outgrown it? Much like music, might someone’s opinion of the East Side’s “prime years” have less to do with the neighborhood itself, and more to do with when that person happened to be 21-25 years old? I have some real concerns I’ll share later, but I wonder if you can entertain the theory that the neighborhood’s “large-scale downshift” is in fact code for “I’m too old to get shitfaced at the Landmark anymore, so I moved to Bay View”?
TM: My use of “alarming” wasn’t because I aged out of the East Side (a place I never lived, though my year of pre-Camp Bar and Metro Market-era purgatory in Shorewood before moving to the south side, then winding up in Bay View might qualify me?). Rather, my concern comes from actually speaking with business owners. While tracking down information on the recent Yield closing and rumored coup attempt to take residence at the site of The Hotel Foster, I got, gulp, an alarming idea of the current state of the neighborhood’s financial standing. Sure, on sight alone, things might seem “as North Ave.-y as ever” (did I do that right?) to you, but compared the salad days of even 10 years ago, things aren’t nearly so peachy beneath the surface.
While interviewing him about The Hotel Foster’s rumored closing, owner Doug Williams (who also happens to be the VP of the East Side BID) acknowledged the mounting issues facing him and many of his bar and restaurant counterparts. “Since we opened [in 2011], the area has become locally depressed in terms of an entertainment district,” Williams told me. “It’s very evident now because every place is closing. If you’re just a customer on the block, you might be like, ‘Things are a lot different than they were five years ago.'” Williams also speculated the since-solved occupancy situation arose when he tried to renegotiate Foster’s rent “along with probably every other tenant on this block.”
Even all the way over here in Bay View, hearing someone with such close ties to the district and its business owners saying that doesn’t sound great to me. What’s different now than it was in the last five years, though? Beyond these hulking and bland dwellings and the increase in national chains taking root in the area, I’d venture a guess the inception of Uber, Lyft, and the like have resulted in North Ave. nightlife on the whole taking a hit. Before those services came to town, many students and East Side residents were likely to stay near campus or brave the bus or cab systems (a different A-side/B-side topic) instead of venture out of their surrounding when going out. Also, at the risk of opening yet another can of worms, there’s a bunch of great restaurants, bars, and other amenities that have come to places like Bay View, Walker’s Point, and Wauwatosa (now home to the only Red Dot!) that are helping to bring more residents and crosstown visitors (and their money) there, and as a result, off North Ave.
Not long after losing the Kenilworth Place spot Yield held for 11 years, co-owner Patrick Kapple told me he was no longer seeking to re-open the bar—which doubled as one of just a select few music venues in the area—in the economically addled area:
“The neighborhood is changing and it’s not what it used to be. There’s not much support from the Neighborhood Association and the homeowners in the area. There just seems to be better business opportunities elsewhere in the city at this point. North Ave. is not getting the support that it needs from the neighborhood.”
It’s sad, especially for an area that had (and in many ways, still has) such character and is home to a few of this Bay View resident’s favorite local spots. Yet despite some recession- and trend-proof exceptions to the rule, it unfortunately seems to be true. So, admitting the North Ave. area will never die, how can we help restore it? Does that fall on business owners bringing quality places to fill these gaps? Consumers remembering the gems this area offers? Landlords and developers reducing their fucking rent costs?
MW: Let me be clear: I’ll always stick up for the East Side, but I’m under no illusions that much of Milwaukee’s action has moved elsewhere. Bay View and the Third Ward are currently the kings of the city’s restaurant scene, and there’s no amount of brunch at Beans & Barley that will change that. Ditto for the city’s general nightlife scene. By and large, the people who are starting their own businesses and/or restaurants—the folks who are bravely keeping Milwaukee forever moving #onward—aren’t living on the East Side, and therefore aren’t “investing” in the East Side. And that’s understandable. You go where the action is.
So I’m left to wonder: Could that action return? To answer that question, I reached out to permanent Eastsider Ald. Nik Kovac, who represents Milwaukee’s 3rd district. “I never like to see businesses close,” Kovac told me, “especially ones like the Y-Not Y-Not Y-Not where I have many memories. But any thriving neighborhood is going to have some turnover, and in the case of Yield we already have a new business there that will serve ramen until late—and I can’t wait for them to open.”
Kovak admitted that “right now South 2nd St. and Kinnickinnic Ave. seem to be getting a lot of the best new restaurants,” but went on to say that “I think North Ave. and many of the East Side’s side streets would also be great spots for new food spots.” I tend to agree, and believe all it takes are some prospective business owners willing to give the neighborhood a shot (again).
Oh, and Kovac also had this gem:
“Honestly, anyone who thinks the East Side is dying must not ever look up. The Prospect Mall has risen again, so has Pizza Man, 99 apartments above a brand new library! Seriously, who are you talking to?”
So yeah, the neighborhood ain’t what it used to be, but what neighborhood is? Do you see any hope for the East Side, Tyler?
TM: Absolutely. The local business climate on and around North Ave. might be lean, at least compared to yesteryear. Yet with every mainstay that closes, a new business gets a shot to bring untold opportunity and life back to the area. Be it a ramen joint, a “mini-golf tavern” or just another sports bar utterly devoid of personality, every door that closes opens up a window of opportunity for change. I just hope they cool it with the fucking apartment complexes already.